Montco courts' delinquent payment collection program reaps dividends

Michael Paston negotiating a payment schedule. "I never give them a number," he said. "I ask, 'How much can you commit to per month?' "
Michael Paston negotiating a payment schedule. "I never give them a number," he said. "I ask, 'How much can you commit to per month?' " (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2014

In September, Montgomery County began going after the thousands of people who were delinquent in paying court fees, fines, and restitution. Ten months later, the office has collected more than $1.2 million on cases dating to 1986.

"The enormity of the results has been surprising to everyone," said Clerk of Courts Ann Thornburg Weiss.

Since offering people the chance to escape a collection agency and pay what they can afford, Weiss' office has seen "exponential" growth in collections.

Most of the money goes back to state and county taxpayers. But a large portion also gets returned to victims who suffered financial losses or medical bills as a result of crime.

Michael Paston, the first deputy clerk of courts who is spearheading the effort, said the key had been setting up a payment plan that the person could stick to.

"There are plenty of people who want to pay what they owe, but they can't pay $250 a month, so they don't pay anything at all," Paston said.

For years, the county had taken a more passive approach. Accounts more than 90 days late could be referred to a collection agency, but if that failed, Weiss said, "no judge, at least in Montgomery County, was about to put people in jail for not paying their fines."

Collection agencies tacked on a 25 percent fee, which Weiss said "makes what is already a bad situation worse."

Paston has been sending notices to about 300 people a month, offering to remove collections if they can pick a plan and stick to it. Nearly 2,300 people have taken him up on the offer.

For Jamal McCloud, 34, a bar fight in 2008 resulted in a year's probation and $1,200 restitution. Collection fees tacked on $300, and McCloud had never made any payments.

At an administrative cost hearing Thursday, Paston removed the collection fee and McCloud agreed to pay $100 a month, starting in September.

Doug McCann, 29, got out of jail in 2010 owing more than $10,000 on three drug cases. Under the state's default calculation, he said he was ordered to pay $900 a month.

"That was more than my rent. How are you supposed to pay that, if you still want to eat?" he said.

McCann has been working steadily as a carpet installer and has paid off two of the cases. On Thursday, he committed to paying $50 a month on the last one. "If I have more, I'll send more," he told Paston.

Some people have committed to paying as little as $5 a month. It may not be much, but as long as they keep it up, Paston is happy.

"I never give them a number. I ask, 'How much can you commit to per month?' " Paston said. "It's not about the total amount. It's an amount you can do consistently."

And then there are those who have the ability to pay but just never thought they'd have to.

"I have a guy from 1996, he called and said: 'I just got this notice. I figured someday you guys would come looking for the money,' " Paston recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, today's the day.' "

By the end of June, that man and 341 others had paid in full. Roughly 75 percent of those who set up payment plans have kept up with them. Those who default can still be referred to collection agencies or be charged with contempt of court.

Paston and Weiss modeled their new approach after that used in Westmoreland County, where Clerk of Courts Bryan L. Kline started going after delinquents in 2012.

Kline had served on a statewide restitution task force and was moved by the victims who were still waiting to be repaid years after the crime.

Two years after the task force released its report, he said, few counties have taken up its recommendation.

"Montgomery County has been very successful at this," Kline said, and he's recently had inquiries from Fayette, York, and Lancaster Counties. "There's no reason every clerk of court in the state couldn't do this."

In Montco, it has been a matter of time and resources. Paston spends about 70 percent of his time on delinquents. He has added one full-time staffer and will soon need another, he said.

"There's an endless supply of old cases," he said.

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

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